Proportions – introduction to measurement and alignment techniques

Although for us not the ultimate aim of life drawing, getting the proportions of a figure right can help you achieve a life-like and natural drawing and avoid the ‘mutant’ look (which pervaded most of my early drawings). Even if you don’t care too much about being ‘accurate’, learning to draw in proportion means strengthening your eye’s observational strength and your arm’s ability to put down marks, so your overall drawing ability will benefit.

Getting proportions right seems to be more difficult in the early stages for many artists than accurately drawing a shape or getting tone and shade roughly right. You can carefully draw limbs and features, get each to a point you are happy with, take a step back and realise that the head should be three times further away from the shoulder and the leg should be half the length that it is.

Avoiding that requires two things – firstly a modification to your drawing process – you can establish the overall pose with gestural and construction marks before worrying about details – things we cover in the free First Steps mini-course. Doing this well will help ensure that relative positions and sizes are established before moving on to detail.

Secondly, you need to be able to translate the positions of points and the lengths of lines you see in the pose onto the page. As your eye’s observations become stronger, you’ll be able to do most of that work without having to consciously think about it. But to train your eye, and for times when you can’t quite figure out what a particular length or distance should be, conscious measurement techniques become important.

You may have seen artists closing one eye, holding out a pencil at arm’s length in front of them, possibly sticking their tongue out, and wondered what they’re up to. Below is an introductory tutorial on a couple of those techniques. We’ll go much more in-depth on this and other measurement methods in other articles, but the following is a good starting point. We are preparing some videos that’ll provide a visual demonstration, but hopefully this description will suffice for now.

Vertical and horizontal lines:

A good starting point is to see horizontal and vertical lines that help to position body parts in relation to one another. You can imagine horizontal or vertical lines from certain points in the figure to see which other points of the body lie on those lines. For example, you may notice that the edge of the left ear is on the same vertical line as the bend in the elbow, and the ankle. While drawing, it is useful to regularly check the vertical and horizontal lines – which lines you should look at will depend on the pose. For example, if drawing a standing pose and the drawing is looking unstable or wonky somehow, a check on the vertical line down from the ear can often be revealing.


Measure relative lengths

The distances between points in the pose we are interested in are relative. In other words, how far is the distance between the shoulders from my perspective compared to the distance from the chin to the top of the head. If it’s twice the distance, we want our drawing to be the same. So we need a way to measure relative distances.

1. Choose a unit of measurement

You should first decide on a body part as a unit of measurement. The head is often used for this purpose. So lets say we’re using the length of the head as our unit – from the tip of the chin to the very top of the head. We can now check all sorts of distances in terms of head lengths. For example, one way we could use this to measure the horizontal distance between the furthest left point and furthest right point in the pose in terms of head lengths. We can do the same with the lowest and the highest point. These measurements can then be used to construct boundary lines for the drawing. Now we now the overall size of the drawing compared to the head.

2. Measure the selected unit (e.g. the head)

If drawing a live model, you can hold a pencil or similarly long object between one eye (close the other eye) and the figure. It’s best to hold the pencil at arm’s length, with arm straight, to ensure that you keep the pencil at the same distance from your eye when making other measurements. You line up the tip of the pencil with one point, and then hold a finger nail (usually the thumb nail of the hand you’re holding the pencil with) against the pencil at the point that lines up with the second point of the distance you are measuring. For example, if measuring the head, you could line up the end of the pencil with the very top of the head, and then press your thumbnail to the pencil where you see the chin. You now have the head length measured on your pencil.

If you are drawing from a photo reference, you can use the same process, but you don’t need to hold the pencil out at arms length – you can usually just put the pencil straight onto the photo or screen.

3. Use it to measure other distances in the pose

You then hold up the pencil, with thumbnail in the same place, to other parts of the figure and see how they compare to the length you have measured. For example, you could check how many head lengths fit into the length of the arm.

4. Apply the measurement to the drawing

Once you know the relative lengths and distances, you can ensure that your drawing conforms to them. You can again use the pencil and thumbnail, but this time pressing the pencil to your your page this time. Measure the length of the head in your drawing using the tip of the pencil and your thumbail. Transfer this to other parts of the drawing and make sure the relative distances are the same as those you measured on the figure.


You may find that you need to do quite a lot of measuring in your early drawings when you want to get things ‘right’, and we’ll show you more methods like this. As time goes on, you’ll need these methods less and less since you are just able to draw in proportion with consciously measuring and aligning. At that point, you can save these techniques for moments where you are stuck – something looks wrong but you aren’t sure how to fix it. This is great news, because we should be free from these analytical methods so that we can draw with energy.

For more on how to get things in the right position and in proportion, plus the other skills that will accelerate your progress, have a look at our free online beginner course First Steps.

If you have anything to add or some comments, please add them below!

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